Strange Bedfellow

Spin Out

The president’s lawyer, Bob Bennett, overdoes the damage control in the Paula Jones case.

For a guy who gets $500 an hour to spin the press, Robert S. Bennett sometimes does a remarkably clumsy job of it. One of his more ham-handed efforts was made evident on the front page of the New York Times, Monday, June 2, in an article about Bennett’s defense of President Clinton in the sexual-harassment suit filed by Paula Jones. “Lawyers working with Mr. Bennett acknowledge that they spent several hours on Saturday questioning a man who said he had an intimate relationship with Ms. Jones,” the dispatch noted. “The man, whom they declined to identify, was flown to Washington and put up in a hotel by the lawyers who said he provided a sworn statement about her behavior.”

This looked like low-rent PR and legal work for several reasons. The first is the diaphanous curtain from behind which the Wizard speaks. If Bennett himself was not the source of this “acknowledgement,” he evidently authorized one of his seven associates to dish it out to the reporter, Neil A. Lewis, who has written generously about Bennett in the past. If you’re not going to conceal your leaking better than that, why not take credit for the information directly?

But more important and more disturbing, at least from his client’s point of view, is what the leak represented in terms of defense strategy. Bennett, who had spent the weekend on Meet the Press and CNN’s Late Edition making veiled and not-so-veiled threats to dredge up Paula Jones’ sexual history (threats from which he backed off later in the week), was pushing a counterproductive tactic even further. By threatening to blackmail Jones, the president’s lawyer managed to make his client look guilty as hell, enrage the feminists who had refrained from criticizing Clinton until then, and incite editorial boards around the country, while doing nothing to bring Jones’ lawyers back to the settlement table. Bennett’s only accomplishment was a rather dubious one: getting the Times to violate its own standards of fairness by printing a nasty smear–an unspecified allegation from an unnamed accuser, passed along by an anonymous, if easily identified, source.

Bob Bennett has done a fine job for any number of clients, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Clark Clifford, and the Neanderthal owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott. But the display of bluster in the Times and on television this past weekend suggests that Bennett is the wrong lawyer for Clinton in the Paula Jones case. If Jones is telling the truth to any significant degree, Clinton should find a way to settle the case as quickly and as quietly as possible, keeping intact as many shreds of dignity as he has left. A bully, a wheeler-dealer, and a loudmouth, Bob Bennett seems to be doing just the opposite: dragging the president deeper into the lurid morass, while accentuating the public spectacle of his disgrace.

C linton, of course, must share credit for the foolish effort to intimidate Jones. As Bennett noted on CNN, he had talked with his client before going on the air, and it’s hard to imagine they didn’t discuss this approach to the suit. And in a larger sense, Clinton gets the blame for hiring a lawyer known for playing hardball and winning ugly. Every profile of Bennett remarks on his early aptitude for pugilism. As a child, according to one story, Bennett’s mother paid him a nickel for every day he didn’t get into a fight back in Flatbush, the tough Brooklyn neighborhood where he and younger brother William grew up before the family moved to Washington. As a student, Bob Bennett was an apprentice to Thomas Corcoran (a k a Tommy the Cork), a legal adviser to FDR who became the prototype of the Washington lawyer as fixer. Bennett has done well for his celebrity clients in the past not by convincing juries, but by waging media and lobbying battles on their behalf, often with incredible chutzpah.

His paradigmatic success was his work on behalf of Weinberger. Bennett won the battle against Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh by turning the case against the prosecution. He charged that Assistant Prosecutor James Brosnahan was a partisan Democrat pursuing an old and sick man and (ironic in light of Bennett’s effort to dirty up Paula Jones) delving into irrelevant aspects of his personal life. Disingenuously but effectively, Bennett claimed that Walsh was trying to blackmail Weinberger into telling falsehoods about Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, Bennett lobbied the Bush White House–and lobbied key legislators to lobby the White House–for a pardon. Four and a half years after George Bush pardoned him, the supposedly deathly ill Weinberger looks pretty good.

Bennett’s most conspicuous failure–his only conspicuous failure, in fact–was his defense of former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, who is now serving time for ripping off the House Post Office and gift shop. The problem was that in the midst of pre-indictment machinations in the Rostenkowski case, a bigger client came along in the shape of the president, who hired the much-touted Bennett when his reputation for genius was at its highest. As if on cue, the superlawyer’s stock began to drop. He agreed to take on the Jones case without warning Rosty and, pressed for time, pressured his client to accept a plea bargain that would have meant time in prison. Rostenkowski fired Bennett–who had already billed him for $1.5 million–in part because he believed Bennett was responsible for damaging leaks about what crimes he was willing to confess to.

Lloyd Cutler, a discreet, old-style attorney who is Bennett’s legal antithesis, reportedly recommended him for the Jones case because he felt that Clinton needed someone with better media skills and more political savvy than David Kendall, who represents the Clintons in Whitewater-related matters. This now looks like lousy advice. In 1994, Jones wasn’t being taken terribly seriously. By hiring an obscure attorney in Arkansas, or by letting his regular lawyer handle the case, Clinton would have sent a compelling signal that her story was a fantasy. By hiring Bennett, Clinton telegraphed the message that he was taking the case very seriously indeed. Bennett himself then proceeded to elevate the suit by going on Larry King Live and Don Imus’ show and discussing the tawdry details of Jones’ claim.

Bennett did make one highly successful move by delaying the suit until after the 1996 election. But faced with the possibility of a trial, he is falling back on his familiar tactics, and they aren’t working. Intimidating the plaintiff might be an effective tactic in a normal sexual-harassment case, one taking place out of the limelight. Here, Goliath is trying to rub out David in front of a mass audience. On ABC’s This Week, when Bennett warned darkly that Jones might get what she wants and be squashed like a dog under the wheels of a car, he sounded like the bully he is. Belatedly, he seems to have realized this. Wednesday, he went on Nightline, and maintained with a straight face that he never intended to drag in Jones’ sexual history.

But spin won’t help him either. The press has been through an orgy of breast-beating over its dismissal of Jones in 1994. This attitude was fueled in part by Bennett’s leaks and sound bites about what a big-haired slut she was, and reversed by an influential article by Stuart Taylor Jr. in the American Lawyer. For the same reason that the National Organization for Women can no longer give Clinton the benefit of the doubt in his sexual-harassment case, the media are now in be-extra-fair-to-Paula mode. Bennett won’t get away with trashing her on the record or off this time around.